CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico
The U.S. Defense Department thinks Mexico's two most deadly drug cartels together have fielded more than 100,000 foot soldiers - an army that rivals Mexico's armed forces and threatens to turn the country into a narco-state.
"It's moving to crisis proportions," a senior U.S. defense official told The Washington Times. The official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitive nature of his work, said the cartels' "foot soldiers" are on a par with Mexico's army of about 130,000.
The disclosure underlines the enormity of the challenge Mexico and the United States face as they struggle to contain what is increasingly looking like a civil war or an insurgency along the U.S.-Mexico border. In the past year, about 7,000 people have died - more than 1,000 in January alone. The conflict has become increasingly brutal, with victims beheaded and bodies dissolved in vats of acid.
The death toll dwarfs that in Afghanistan, where about 200 fatalities, including 29 U.S. troops, were reported in the first two months of 2009. About 400 people, including 31 U.S. military personnel, died in Iraq during the same period.
The biggest and most violent combatants are the Sinaloa cartel, known by U.S. and Mexican federal law enforcement officials as the "Federation" or "Golden Triangle," and its main rival, "Los Zetas" or the Gulf Cartel, whose territory runs along the Laredo,Texas, borderlands.
The two cartels appear to be negotiating a truce or merger to defeat rivals and better withstand government pressure. U.S. officials say the consequences of such a pact would be grave.
"I think if they merge or decide to cooperate in a greater way, Mexico could potentially have a national security crisis," the defense official said. He said the two have amassed so many people and weapons that Mexican President Felipe Calderon is "fighting for his life" and "for the life of Mexico right now."
As a result, Mexico is behind only Pakistan and Iran as a top U.S. national security concern, ranking above Afghanistan and Iraq, the defense official added.
Other U.S. officials and Mexico specialists agreed with this assessment.
Michael V. Hayden, who left as CIA director in January, put Mexico second to Iran as a top national security threat to the United States. His successor, Leon E. Panetta, told reporters at his first news conference that the agency is "paying ... a lot of attention to" Mexico.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told CBS' "60 Minutes" on Sunday that "the stakes are high for the safety of many, many citizens of Mexico and the stakes are high for the United States no doubt."
In a December interview with The Times, President Bush said his successor would need to deal "with these drug cartels in our own neighborhood. And the front line of the fight will be Mexico."
A State Department travel advisory last month seemed timed to caution U.S. students contemplating spring breaks south of the border.
"Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades," the advisory said.
Independent analysts warn that narco-terrorists have infiltrated the Mexican government, creating a shadow regime that further complicates efforts to contain and destroy the cartels.
"My greatest fear is that the tentacles of the shadow government grow stronger, that the cartels have penetrated the government and that they will be able to act with impunity and that this ever stronger shadow government will effectively evolve into a narco-state," said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.
The Mexican Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on the drug war.
Mr. Calderon, however, has adamantly denied assertions that Mexico is becoming a failed state.
The Mexican government has "not lost any part - any single part - of the Mexican territory to drug cartels," he recently told the Associated Press.
His comments run counter to the impressions of U.S. law enforcement officials and some Mexican journalists reporting in Ciudad Juarez, a city just across the border from El Paso, Texas.
On a recent morning here, the once-bustling border town of 1.3 million was more like a ghost town.
"It's empty," said a vendor of freshly baked tortillas and salsa, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Maria. "We are in a losing war against the narco-traffickers. My business is dying, and soon it will join the graveyard of businesses that have had to close down. No one comes Juarez anymore."
More than 1,800 people have been killed in the city since last year. The number continued to climb as The Times visited, with more than 20 deaths in one week.
In response to the challenge, U.S. and Mexican authorities have stepped up raids on cartel members in both countries.
Last week, U.S. and Mexican forces arrested 755 people, including 52 in the United States associated with the Sinaloa cartel. However, cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is still at large. He is thought to be living in Sinaloa and protected by hired gunmen and Mexican federal officials on his payroll, said a U.S. law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing intelligence operations.
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman Garrison Courtney said last week's raids put a dent in cartel operations but that public attention to the crisis has been long in coming.
"If we don't start paying attention, the violence - which has already spilled into the U.S. - is going to get worse," Mr. Courtney said. "This is a shared interest between the United States and Mexico to go after these drug traffickers."
In recent years, however, U.S. officials have been reluctant to share information with Mexican counterparts, fearing that they will leak to the cartels.
DEA officials interviewed by The Times said the Sinaloa cartel employs Mexican federal officials, while other cartels pay off local governments and police.
"Many times, what you see isn't really what's going on," said a DEA official, who asked not to be named because of the nature of his work. "Many times the death of federal officers or local police isn't a cartel making the hit, but the cartels themselves in the government fighting one another. The same thing has happened to the Mexican army, where the cartels have also bought loyalty to move dope into the U.S."
Mr. Courtney said the Mexican cartels have "evolved into the Colombian cartels of the 1980s. Even the government's reaction to what's going on there right now and over the last five years is what the government of Colombia faced when they went after Pablo Escobar. Juarez has seen an escalation in that same type of brutal violence."
Escobar was a Colombian drug lord who died in 1993.
More than 2,000 Mexican army soldiers and 425 federal police are patrolling in Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez is located. More than 45,000 Mexican troops have been engaged in the drug war since Mr. Calderon took office in 2006.
Mr. Carpenter said the use of the Mexican military may be backfiring.
"I said at the time when Calderon called the military to take the lead role in confronting the cartels that he was undertaking a massive gamble," Mr. Carpenter said. "It is clear now that he is losing that gamble if he has not already lost it."
A U.S. counterterrorism official said, however, that the severity of the crisis was bringing the U.S. and Mexican governments closer and that the CIA will work closely with Mexico if asked for guidance.
"Both countries have a common interest in clamping down on the cartels, and that has shaved away some of the underlying historical tensions in what has long been a close relationship with Mexico," said the official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. "The Mexicans understand - perhaps more so than at any time in recent memory - that we are genuine about taking these people on."
Meanwhile, thousands of Mexicans daily cross the Santa Fe bridge, which connects Ciudad Juarez to El Paso, ironically one of the safest U.S. cities.
"Why should we have to live like this?"asked Maria, the vendor. "Why do our children have to die, while our neighbors live like nothing is happening? Every day we pray for something different, for peace. Every day our prayers are left unanswered."